I’ve had occasion lately to think about the gift (and the problem) of inspiration. As a musician, this is central to my life.
One of my middle school art teachers once said that the artist needs to be inspired before he perspires, that one cannot set about an artistic task without a driving force behind it. I have been of two minds on this issue, but the more of life I get through, the more I think that he was right. All the self-motivation in the world cannot make up for any lack of inspiration, and the lifeless, or even trite, results of forced artistic work bear this out.
The bigger problem, however, is what to do when one finds himself in the midst of a dry spell. As a professional musician, I don’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, sorry, not feeling inspired today. Maybe sometime later? I usually peak around midnight or 2am.” That’s not feasible, obviously, and the artist, particularly live performers such as musicians, actors, and dancers, need to find ways of dealing with this. Failure to do so leads to burnout, and burnout can be fatal to the artistic career, and at astoundingly young ages, at that.
To be sure, anyone who’s thought through this will have their own ways of dealing with the problem of inspiration. Only recently, I found a way of looking at this situation which has the advantage being re-energizing without being contrived. It is this: whatever composition one is studying, take the time just to imagine what sort of inspirational experience and/or state of being was required for the composer to come up with such a thing. Forget compositional technique or theoretical prowess. Rather, focus on the question of what the driving force behind a given piece of art is.
I must say that this has transformed the way I look at music. (I should also say that this exercise only works with great music. Throw away anything that is not spectacular, for it has nothing to say.) Take, for instance, what Bach did in his Fugue in D Major, BWV 532. There is in this piece an almost Beethovenian refusal to bring it all to a conclusion, as one joyous exclamation supercedes another. Without much reflection such repetitiveness can perhaps become annoying, until one asks the question: What possessed Bach to do this? We don’t need to know the exact answer to this question, really, but we can surmise to our benefit that, whatever inspired such shouts of exultation must surely have been a grand and glorious thing, and sometimes that is all it takes to renew the artistic soul.
Here’s a recording of the Bach, played by Felix Hell. (Note, the filmer is a different Michael Lawrence!)
“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”
–Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart